DECATUR, Ala. (WHNT) – During the current legislative session, a federal judge has issued a permanent injunction against state statutes that criminalizes homeless people for panhandling, saying that locking people up for asking for help violates the first amendment to the United States Constitution.
The ruling came as an Alabama House Republican filed a bill that would also increase penalties for loitering, subjecting those who are homeless to months in jail and fines.
The ruling has been sought for years by homeless advocates and clergy, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC said that criminalizing people for asking for help further disenfranchises those who are already facing economic hardship.
“What the state needs to be focused on is not criminalizing people who are unhoused, but focus on things like housing, medical care for people and workforce development,” said Micah West, Senior Staff Attorney. “All of that actually addresses the root problem that’s leading people to be unhoused and asking for help.”
The SPLC filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of several unhoused people. But Alabama representative Reed Ingram, R-Montgomery, is pushing a bill that’s backed by GOP lawmakers that would make loitering a violation that’s punishable with fines and up to three months in jail.
“Homeless people here in Decatur City are set up for failure because they are being criminalized for not having what you and I have,” explained Sue Terrell of Hands Across Decatur. “To be treated differently because they have no home is not right and something has to be done.”
Brad Johnson, once homeless in Morgan County, was put in handcuffs while trying to overcome his hardship.
“Unfortunately, between jail and having to pay fines how can people get a job when they are sitting in jail for something as simple as trying to find a place to stay or trying to find something to eat,” said Johnson.
If the bill passes it would make loitering a violation that’s punishable by $300 in fines and at least three months in jail time.
“When you’re paying probation fees, court costs, fines and sitting in jail for sometimes two years on something simple because you can’t afford a $300 bond,” Johnson explained.
Despite the concerns, Ingram believes he can get the bill through.